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Wise As It Was: Headed out – National Guard took community leaders from Decatur in ’61

By Racey Burden | Published Saturday, May 19, 2018
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In the midst of the Cold War, local National Guardsmen began preparing for the inevitable call to active duty.

In February of 1961, months before the construction of the Berlin Wall, guardsmen in Decatur were called up for “Operation Muster,” a mobilization drill.

LEAVING FOR LOUISIANA – The front page of the Messenger on Oct. 26, 1961, shows the Decatur National Guard unit boarding buses for Fort Polk, La. They would be on active duty for 10 months, leaving open several important positions in the community, from post man to fireman.

“None of us know when some disaster might strike,” Lt. Reed Hoyt Tally, commander of the Decatur National Guard unit, told the Messenger at the time. “It behooves us as modern up-to-the-minutemen to be ready to respond to the call of the state or nation.”

That call would come sooner rather than later, as the Berlin Crisis in the summer of 1961 escalated tension between the United States and Russia. In September of that year, the Texas National Guard announced it would soon be calling its men to active duty.

An estimated 80 men throughout Wise County belonged to the National Guard, with at least 60 from Decatur. The majority of the men belonged to the 49th Armored Division, including war hero W.B. Woodruff, a three-time Purple Heart recipient who at that time was a partner at a Decatur law firm and a captain in the Guard. Woodruff’s son, Decatur Mayor Martin Woodruff, remembers the day the guard was called up. He was in his seventh grade class when they heard the news.

“One of my classmates, her dad was in the unit,” Woodruff said. “She was really upset about it. She left the class in tears.”

Set to head to active duty in mid-October, the men prepared to leave their families, jobs and friends behind. A meeting of the Wise County Firemen’s Association was bumped up two weeks because most of the firefighters were guardsmen who would soon be headed to Fort Polk, La.

Warren Hunt, owner of Liberty Cleaners, took out an ad in the Messenger to announce Mr. and Mrs. Claude Wells would take over his business in October, “due to my being called to active duty in the 49th Armored Division Texas National Guard.” Sammy Joe Connally and his sweetheart Patricia Dean married over the last weekend in September so she could be set up in their rent house before he left for duty. The Decatur Post Office shuffled around routes as mail carriers departed town for training.

W.B. Woodruff and Joe Forman, two future Decatur mayors, were among the first sent off to Dallas and Fort Worth in early October to wait at their division headquarters.

Later that month the Decatur Chamber of Commerce, Lions Club and the Rotary Club threw a barbecue party for the remaining guardsmen. Speaker J.A. Ferguson of the First National Bank laid out the “evils” of communism, so the men would remember what they were fighting against: “[Khrushchev’s] philosophy is communistic. His religion is atheistic. His desire is to destroy private property rights. His aim is the domination, with these doctrines, of every nation of the world and the enslavement of every human soul.”

The shadow of Russia loomed in the Oct. 26, 1961, issue of the Messenger, where publisher Gene Carter discussed the Russian’s latest hydrogen bomb tests on the front page. Next to his column was a picture of the guardsmen lining up at the Decatur armory for an overnight bus ride to Fort Polk, surrounded by their wives and children who stayed up for the 11:30 departure to say goodbye.

“When they got there they had to reopen Fort Polk. It closed after World War II,” Woodruff said. “They had to turn the lights on and make repairs, in addition to conducting training.”

The loss of so many community leaders and family breadwinners for months at a time took a toll on those left behind. Woodruff recalled that almost the entire volunteer fire department was in the guard, so local men with no training took up their posts, including the reverend at the Methodist church in Decatur. He could be seen running from the parsonage across the street to the fire hall every time the alarms rang.

In late November, Capt. Max Weaver sent a letter to Gene Carter to be published in the Messenger, assuring his friends and family “the Decatur boys are all well and doing a fine job; all are eagerly looking forward to the Christmas holidays.” Weaver and the other men didn’t know when they’d be allowed to head home for good, though they hoped it would be soon.

“These young men, for the most part, were called up at a time when they were just getting their families started, were beginning to take hold of responsible jobs with future promise, and had limited income but growing financial needs…” the article following the letter said. “Suddenly they were called to active duty. Families were separated, jobs had to be given up, private income was mostly cut off.”

Most of the men in the 49th were gone for 10 months. They returned Aug. 7, 1962, after tensions in Germany eased, yelling “We’re home!” to their families as the buses rolled up to the armory in Decatur.

Mayor Phil Luker ordered a day to honor the guardsmen Aug. 9, closing local businesses at 3 p.m. so everyone in town had the opportunity to welcome the men home with a party at the reunion ground that afternoon. The guard members ate hamburgers as they celebrated their return to civilian status.

W.B. Woodruff, however, chose to remain on active duty following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. He transferred to Fort Stewart, Ga., where the guard awaited an invasion of Cuba that would never be ordered. W.B. returned home for good in 1963.

“All of them came back in ’62, except for my dad,” Woodruff said. “Everybody else’s dad came home within 12 months. Mine took 24.”

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